A City in Winter

20th December 1996 at 00:00
(Photograph) - In A City in Winter, Mark Helprin's chilly tale of abuse of power in overdrive, the royal palace is the size of a small country and the royal bakery (seat of rebellion against the cruel Usurper) takes six hours to cross by flying bench.

The surreal tricks that Helprin plays with his vaguely Ruritanian setting, his sending up of the more pompous villains and stooges, and the glowing colour plates by Chris Van Allsburg lighten a sometimes ponderous story in which a child princess disguised as a commoner overcomes the forces of evil. The chief baddie is hard to take seriously as a character (he looks like an understudy for the Phantom of the Opera) but the climate of inhuman menace is convincing. The book looks and feels like a story-book in a story - the sort of thing the young Jane Eyre would have hidden behind the curtains to read. (Viking Ariel Pounds 14.99)

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